The Plant

Excerpted/adapted from Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, published by Seal Press, 2005


Piano teacher with one room to rent, Steinway B to share for practicing, Sunset District. The notice couldn’t have been more perfect if I had written out my ideal scenario and tacked it to the “Housing to Share” board myself. I would be starting graduate studies in piano performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in a month, and I still didn’t have a place to live. I jotted down the number and called.

The piano teacher with one room to rent invited me over right away, and we sat and talked over coffee. She was nice, she seemed easygoing, she understood what life was like as a pianist, and—more important even than the size of the room she had to rent—her Steinway was in perfect condition. She politely excused herself to the kitchen while I tried a few phrases of Ravel, a bit of Beethoven, too shy to play out anything whole. But I could tell it was perfect: the piano, the room, the house, all of it. By the time we had spoken for an hour, and she seemed close to handing over a key right there, it seemed time to tell her the truth about me. So I told her I was sick, that there wasn’t any diagnosis any doctor had given me that didn’t make me sound crazy—Epstein-Barr, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome. She took it well. She asked me questions about what it felt like, and when I was done talking she just nodded her head. She said, This must be hard for you. She was compassionate, one of those Bay Area mindful-meditation people who really does believe in good vibrations.

When I moved in, she had the room fixed up nicely. Would I mind that her earthquake-preparedness kit was stashed in my closet, would I still have enough room? My sweaters and wrinkly shirts dangled sparsely over her bottled water, a brick wall of PowerBars. In front of the floor-to-ceiling picture window was a table with a small potted plant on it. This is your welcome-to-your-new-home present, she said, a way for you to gauge how kind to yourself you are. I was taken aback. The responsibility of the plant daunted me, and I was afraid it showed. But if my new housemate was offended, she hid it in a tranquil smile.

The plant is a metaphor for your health, she said. When you water the plant in the morning, that should remind you to make sure you nourish yourself, too. When you see your plant drooping, it should remind you to slow down.

What kind of plant is it? I asked. An African violet, she told me. You couldn’t have started me out with something more self-sufficient? I asked. A cactus? She laughed. This one’s pretty sturdy, it’ll be fine, she said. Just take care of it and take care of yourself. The two of you will thrive.

This was before I had children, in fact long before I ever imagined myself in a relationship, let alone married with kids, and the pain in my body was not the stress of sleep-deprivation or the daily toll of caring for two relentless human beings. This was vague, amorphous pain, the grand and tragic pain of heartache and Romantic literature, pain that never got better but also never got worse. It was pain that throbbed sometimes and ached others, pain that felt like shin splints, pain that didn’t respond to Advil or Naprosyn or Prozac or Zoloft. My new housemate left me alone to unpack, and I sat on my new bed and stared at the plant and silently apologized to it in advance.

The plant thrived at first, despite my inexpert care. The first week I mostly glared at it, sitting in its orange clay pot, my smug master. What could this plant teach me about dealing with pain? This plant was in for a rude surprise. I was not like my supercompetent housemate, I was not prepared for earthquakes or disaster. I had arrived in San Francisco with barely enough money to merit a checking account, I was waiting on student loans, signing up for credit cards and using them without thought for how I might pay the bills later. I was tired. I was sick. I was in pain, and my pain thwarted the doctors I saw, thwarted my desire to be active and sleepless and energetic. I laid in bed that first week and blamed the plant for just sitting there, serenely blooming, brazenly waiting to be cared for by me.

The next week I tried to make peace with the plant. When I took my medication in the mornings, I’d channel my housemate’s chipper demeanor and say, “Time to take your medicine, too!” as I poured a mixture of water and plant food into the pot. I left my clock radio on, tuned to the classical station, whenever I would leave the room. It was a small gesture, but it seemed the least I could do.

Then school started, and I was busy with my classes, with my repertoire, with coping with my pain and trying to have a normal life. I forgot about the tentative truce the plant and I had made. Sometimes I would return to my room after a long weekend with friends and be surprised to see the plant still standing tall in its pot. I would water it guiltily, flooding it to overcompensate for the several days of inattention. Gradually I noticed it shriveling some. I felt bad about this.

My housemate was always solicitous about my health. She enjoyed cooking and often invited me to eat with her, sparing me the chore of making food. We would sit and eat at her table and talk about all kinds of things—her piano teaching, my repertoire, stories of music politics and tense moments from her own musically competitive youth. We talked about earthquakes and natural disasters, about recycling and conserving water, about politics and health food stores. One night during a dinner she had made, she asked me if I’d ever tried hypnosis for my pain. I hadn’t. She had had troubles with carpal tunnel syndrome, and of all the things she’d tried—acupuncture, Rolfing, Western medicine, Chinese herbs—hypnosis was the one practice that had actually made a difference.

What was it about it that helped? I asked. She considered this and then said, Have you ever thought about inviting your pain into your body? I said no. She nodded. Pain is a signal that something is wrong, she said. We resist it, we fight it, we get tense around it, and eventually that makes the pain even worse. What hypnosis did was help me invite that pain, really consider its purpose in my body and in my life. And when I did that, she said, I was able to work with it and gradually start to heal.

I hadn’t thought about my pain like that. I had spent two years, by that point, actively resisting it, forcing myself to be “normal” for those around me so that they would not sense the enormous burden of having to take me into consideration, so that they would not flee for fear my pain would contaminate them, infect them, make them aware of their own pain. I don’t know, I said. I don’t think I could do that. She nodded, wrapping her hands around her coffee mug. Pain is a frightening thing.

When we said our good nights and retired to our rooms, I averted my gaze so that I would not have to look at my plant when I laid on my bed. What would it be like if I invited the pain into my body? What would happen if I really let myself feel it, accept it? I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I ached all over. My calves, my thighs, my arms, my chest. My bones hurt. I tried to resist the urge to tense up and panic as I took note of each thing that ached or throbbed, and I laid there and took a deep breath and let myself feel.

I was overwhelmed. What I felt was so raw, so searing, so powerful, I felt as though I was drowning in it, I was losing the small space I desperately clung to that was immune to pain, that had no pity for it. It felt infinite. I began to panic as my body was flooded with the pain signals I had for years been working to suppress, and I opened my eyes and sat up, sobbing. Inviting my pain was too painful, my pain was too intense to merely contemplate. Better to block it out, disrespect it. How else was I supposed to make it through each day?

I looked up to the darkened window and saw my plant, half-brown, the soil cracked like a desert landscape. Despite it all, it was still blooming.

I’d like to say this story has a happy ending, that I was able to revive my plant, that we nursed each other back to health, but that’s not what happened. I failed my plant, it died a brown, crumbly death, and my housemate wordlessly removed it from my room one day while I was at a master class. I returned to find the table empty, an Indian print scarf covering the spot where the plant used to be.

A year later, I lived in the East Bay, I saw a chronic fatigue syndrome specialist named—no joke—Dr. Rest. I took herbal remedies, I boiled pots of twigs and bark, I drank chlorophyll, I began to seek support and compassion from healthy relationships the way my plant valiantly tried to grow toward the light through my housemate’s lacy curtains. Eventually my pain ebbed to the point where I realized it had been so long since I had thought about being in pain, it must have stopped completely. And it had.

My pain now is transient, and, when it comes, finite. My pain now is the pain of laboring to birth a six-pound baby, then, three and a half years later, a seven-and-a-half-pound baby. It is the pain of stepping on a LEGO, of watching my daughter fall on the playground; the pain of an aching back from scooping up a wriggling toddler, or of a week of sleepless nights soothing a teething baby. And the living things I have in my care these days are more insistent than plants; they are loud and occasionally obnoxious, demanding and exhausting. There is no illusion that my care for them mirrors my care for myself, or even encourages me to remember myself at all; that is not their purpose in my life. The intensity of the care my children need blinds me to nearly everything else, and if anything, what I give to them I give to the exclusion of anything I might desire for myself. It is good this way. When a thing requires immediacy and depends so much upon my response, there is no possibility of neglect.

This is not to say I have improved as a caretaker of living things in general, or that my ineptitude with plants is a thing of the past. To the contrary, in the years between that first plant and now, I have murdered a miniature bonsai, a fern my mother-in-law forced upon us, a giant palm some well-meaning friend gave as a housewarming gift. I am not proud of these things. But six months ago, I baby-sat houseplants for some friends, and when the plants remained, unbelievably, alive in my care, I took that as a personal victory, a small step toward horticultural competence.

Still, when my four-year-old daughter offered up a plastic green cup of dirt for me to balance on the hood of our stroller at preschool pick-up time, I was reluctant. Do we have to take this home? I asked her. What is it? I asked the teachers. Yes! My daughter shouted. It’s just a pumpkin seed, one of the teachers said. Then she whispered, out of my daughter’s hearing, It’s probably not going to actually grow—none of them have sprouted. We just wanted them out of the classroom. I agreed to take the cup of dirt home, and I put it on the computer desk next to all the other detritus collected from my daughter’s cubby.

It sat amidst the piles of preschool watercolors and pipe-cleaner crafts projects that also didn’t have a place in our apartment for two months until one day my daughter rescued it. Mommy! She shouted. My plant! Your what? I asked, and then I saw it. Oh, the cup of dirt. Let’s water it! she yelled, running to the sink. Okay, I told her reluctantly, but I don’t think there’s anything in there anymore, Sweetie. We watered the dirt and found a place for the cup on a sunny windowsill, and then we both forgot about it.

Then, suddenly, one morning it was there: a small green bud on the end of a fuzzy green stem just barely protruding from the dirt. My plant! Emi cried. Mommy, look at my plant! It’s growing! We watered it some more, and checked on it daily, and eventually another bud sprouted up. It has a friend, Mommy! Emi said. My plant has TWO plants in it!

Last week she told her preschool teachers about her plant, and they looked at us like we were crazy. You’re sure it’s really growing? they asked. I nodded. It’s tall, I said. The two sprouts are sticking out of the cup now. The teachers seemed surprised. No one else’s pumpkin seed actually grew, one said. Mine was the only one? Emi asked. It looks that way, said her teacher. You must be a special plant person to have it grow for you!

Eventually, we will have to move it from its plastic cup to a bigger home, though, living in an apartment building, that will be no small feat. And more than that, a part of me fears that thinking about a move for this plant is a bit premature. With my track record, after all, there is no reason for these pumpkin sprouts to survive, and I don’t want to disappoint my daughter by encouraging her enthusiasm for something that might not pan out.

But standing there, watching her dance with excitement as she rushes to the windowsill to check on her plant, seeing her carefully hold it under a stream of water, making sure to saturate the clumps of soil surrounding her sprouts, I feel something. And this time, when I invite that feeling in to consider its purpose, it doesn’t frighten me with its intensity. Instead, I find myself feeling cautiously optimistic, with a strange and surprising confidence that it’s safe to trust whatever might happen next.

It feels a little bit like hope.